Szigeti Bach Brahms RVW Biddulph 850412

Joseph Szigeti (violin)
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin (c. 1720): Partita No 3 in E major BWV 1006
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Violin Sonata No 3 in D minor, Op 108 (1888)
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Violin Sonata in A minor (1952)
Carlo Bussotti (piano)
rec. 1955, Seattle, Washington
Biddulph 85041-2 [64]

It’s not often that you can enjoy the spectacle of a reviewer eating humble pie and when I say that we’re not talking about a small, civilised slice, we are talking the whole damn pie. In my review of Biddulph’s last Szigeti release which preserved terrible performances – and there’s no humble pie retrospectively about that – I let fly demanding record companies stop releasing any more live Szigeti material made ‘after 1955’. I could defend myself that this recital comes from 1955 and that therefore it’s just about within my acceptable date but even here I was doubtful in my original review whether even 1955 was early enough. So, before we get into the review proper, let me say that this is by a long stretch the best example of Szigeti’s live recital playing from this time period that I have heard.

That said, it’s obviously far from perfect. His vibrato had become increasingly slow and wide and there are incidental left and right-hand miscalculations, but few recitals are perfect and Szigeti’s mishaps are a long way from his miserable Mercury recordings. He recorded the complete Bach Sonatas and Partitas between July 1955 and March 1956, recordings made for Columbia in the CBS studios in NYC but released later on Vanguard, Columbia having passed on releasing them. They are probing and intelligent recordings, though problematic ones from time to time. However, booklet note writer Wayne Kiley seems to be acting as Szigeti’s posthumous agent if he genuinely thinks that this set represents what he calls ‘the gold standard for Bach playing to this day’ – Milstein, Menuhin, Grumiaux, Heifetz, Szeryng? In this Seattle, Washington recital Szigeti essays the Third Partita in E major and it compares well, though with a touch less subtlety, with the studio version. One can’t avoid the razory qualities of his tone, not least in the Menuet I, but it’s a buoyant, elevated and in some respects commanding example of his later period playing. I should note that he cuts three of the movements, not making repeats in the Loure, Menuet I and Bourée.

Amongst my favourite recordings of Brahms Op 108 is the Szigeti-Petri 78 set from1937 though there’s one from 1956 with Horszowski about which I’ve written all I care to. With Carlo Bussotti he makes a good stab at it. Those elegant slides, so much a function of his expressive playing, are audible (but always tasteful) as is the endemically slow vibrato which is really most noticeable in the slow movement where it mires the music in a bit of treacle. There are a few dicey-sounding moments and occasional bowing instabilities, but both men play well. Bussotti is especially sympathetic without being subordinate and though one feels Szigeti slightly under the note a couple of times in the finale, this is another decent performance and very much better than I’d feared.

I mused aloud in that last review that it was probably just as well that a recording of Vaughan Williams’ sonata, which Szigeti took on tour to colleges and other venues, seems not to have survived. Well, here it is. Szigeti and Bussotti sound right inside this work and right up to tempo too. The violinist’s rubati in the opening movement are especially refined and both men refuse to play safe in the Scherzo. Their tempo matches the Menuhins and the Pike-Roscoe duo, though I’ve heard speeder traversals – Hugh Bean and David Parkhouse, for instance. This movement’s ‘Allegro furioso’ suits Szigeti’s tonal qualities. The Theme and Variations finale is especially swift, as fast as the dedicatee Frederick Grinke and Michael Mulliner took it in their pioneering Decca LP. Those ‘Lark Ascending’ moments as the sonata draws to a close are raptly played by Szigeti.

The recording itself is rather blunt with no bloom, but is clear enough. It does the job. Kiley’s notes do justice to the project though he and I are not going to agree over Szigeti’s Bach nor other matters. He’s right to draw attention to Grinke’s commercial recordings of Vaughan Williams’ Concerto Accademico and The Lark Ascending but perhaps missed a trick in not pointing out the Violin Sonata disc.

So, I am somewhat contrite in welcoming this disc and if I do eat that pie, it will be with a glass of admiration for Szigeti’s elevated playing in the final years of his concertising career.

Jonathan Woolf

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